The older I get, the more I appreciate a good sob story.
Watching your team get knocked out of major tournaments always feels like a dagger through the groin at the time, but eventually I have come to realise how character building it can be!
Each pathetic capitulation, every spot of rotten luck, and all the injustices dished up by referees who were clearly on the take, have all combined to make me who I am today. I wear them like the battle scars of a heavyweight boxer. It’s no longer “poor us! The French cheated!” Now it’s “you see that? That’s where Mohammed Ali socked me in the eye with his left jab!”
I look back on them with warm fondness. They didn’t break me, as hard as they tried. They made me stronger. Now, thanks to them, nothing can hurt me!*
So in light of this, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate the best five Azzurri exits (Azzexits) that I have ever been fortunate enough to witness.
I was a mere novice in the throes of earning my stripes as a proper fan when Italia 90 came along, but by the time USA 94 rolled around it was graduation day. That Italy side was the first football team to ever truly capture my heart. And how could it not when it boasted the likes of Maldini, Baresi, Albertini, Donadoni and, of course, Roberto Baggio?
It was my older brother Nando who introduced me to the wonders of calcio, and it was the comfort of his living room floor that I watched the final from.
It was a perfect stalemate. For 120 minutes, the Azzurri padlock held tight against what was undeniably the best attacking team in the world in Carlos Alberto Perreira’s Brazil. They launched wave after wave of attack on our goal, but they couldn’t find a way through what was undeniably the best defensive team in the world in Arrigo Sacchi’s Italy. What a match-up it truly was.
And so, with the score at 0-0, it came down to penalties. Márcio Santos missed Brazil’s first and at that point we thought we’d won the World Cup right there! But then Baresi missed. Then Massaro missed… And it all came down to the ‘Divine Ponytail’ himself. Baggio missed and I lay face down on that carpet and didn’t move for a good hour…
After that, my primary concern for the next few years was finding out who invented this penalty shootout concept, and if there was any way I could kill the sadistic bastard in his sleep.
By France 98, Sacchi had gone from Italy’s helm to be replaced by Cesare Maldini, father of Paolo. His slightly more attack minded side had bossed Group B, aside from the usual slow start in the opening game vs Chile, and looked to be on a collision course with Brazil in yet another World Cup final.
As far as I could tell, it was a mere formality. Who could stop us on our side of the draw? Not Germany, who we always beat. Not Croatia, who were only three years clear of an awful civil war at home. And certainly not the hosts, France, perennial underachievers who were generally recognised as a bit of a joke – competing in their first World Cup since 1986 for chrissakes!
Nope. Definitely no threats there… Wait, who were that last lot again?
It was four years after USA 94 and I had grown as a person. I didn’t watch Italy’s quarter final from the floor at my brother’s house. I watched it from the floor of my girlfriend at the time’s house.
It had a pretty familiar ring to it. The French were quite useful on attack with names like Henry, Trezeguet, Deschamps, Petit, and some bloke named Zidane who went alright. But like Brazil before them, they couldn’t find a way to break us down. The difference was we could have and really should have put them away. But luck just wasn’t with us and we couldn’t do it. So with another 120 minute 0-0 under my belt as a fan, we were into another dreaded penalty shootout.
Baggio scored in this one but there were misses by Albertini (one of only two players to score vs Brazil four years prior) and Roma legend Luigi Di Biagio. And yet again I found myself staring deep into the pile of somebody else’s carpet for a good long while…
Not sure what my girlfriend made of all this. Our relationship lasted longer than Italy did in that World Cup, but not by much. But at least gli Azzurri and I will always have each other!
I only had to wait two more years for another big tournament final – and it was a rematch with the French, who I knew better than to take lightly this time.
The game was extremely memorable for a few reasons…
I was flatting in Herne Bay at the time. Nando and I watched the game at my place, along with a mutual friend of ours – an Italian named Giuseppe.
At half time, with the score still at 0-0, Giuseppe offered to make us all coffee with the stovetop espresso machine I had in the kitchen. Everyone thought this was a splendid idea and off he went. Then, a couple of minutes before the second half was due to kick off, an almighty, almost blood curdling, scream emanated from the kitchen… Nando and I ran to investigate.
What we saw was actually quite comical.
The espresso machine had exploded. There was coffee everywhere. All over the bench, all over the floor, all over Giuseppe, and all over all four walls save for one perfectly clean Giuseppe shaped silhouette behind where he was standing…
We were faced with a dilemma. Watch the second half, or clean up? What would you do?
It was more than my life was worth to let my flatmate see the mess we had made. So we all got dishcloths and paper towels and cleaned as furiously as we’d ever cleaned before in our lives so as to miss as little of the game as possible! I turned the volume up on the TV so we could at least hear the commentary. We didn’t see Roma legend Marco Delvecchio’s goal, but we heard it and ran back into the lounge to watch the replays.
By the time the game was winding down through the final minutes we had finished cleaning and we were back in our rightful places in front of the TV. Ninety minutes ticked over. Italy was still 1-0 up. There were only seconds left. We were about to be crowned champions of Europe – something that to this day I have never seen happen.
We prepared to celebrate. Big grins on our faces, we were poised to leap into the air with glee as soon as the referee blew those three long bursts of the whistle… But on and on the game went. And on… And on… For what seemed like about 20 minutes… Until Sylvain Wiltord scored and sent the game into extra time.
Just like that, France had the momentum. They were all over us like a rash. Then with two minutes left of first half extra time, the inevitable happened. David Trezeguet broke our hearts.
And I had a new mortal enemy. Hating penalty shootouts was soooooooo last century. At the dawn of the new millennium, it was the asshole who invented the ‘golden goal’ who needed to sleep with one eye open. Dick.
We were truly awful in this tournament, so I shouldn’t really have had any cause for complaint. But I still do complain because as terrible as we were, we were still plenty good enough to dispatch Guus Hiddink’s South Korea.
I will maintain until my dying breath that our round of 16 game was a fix. There were just sooooooo many terrible refereeing decisions that all went against gli Azzurri for it not to be. Italian players were the subject of numerous, too many to mention individually, challenges that in any other game would have been fouls – every single one of them – with no calls made. Yet every time Italy breathed too heavily in the general direction of a South Korean it was a yellow card offence. This culminated in Francesco Totti being sent from the pitch for a ‘dive’ during extra time…
Maybe he did go down a little easily, but a second yellow?
I thought the whole thing stunk at the time and I said so at great length to anybody who would listen! I don’t know if there was money at stake. I always suspected that it just came down to the tournament organisers wanting one of the host countries to do well for marketing purposes on the Asian continent.
And despite my possibly coming across as something of a raving lunatic back then, there have recently been links made between this particular game and current investigations into FIFA corruption.
Either way, to lose due at least in part to a series of massive injustices like that filled me, and a good 150% of the population of Italy, with extreme outrage.
And nobody paid more dearly for this than the man who scored the goal that sent Italy home! Ahn Jung-hwan was playing Serie A at the time for Perugia. Their owner and Chairman, Luciano Gaucci, immediately cancelled the player’s contract and made it clear he wasn’t welcome back in the country, saying “I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian football.”
I thought that was probably fair enough.
This is undoubtedly the granddaddy of all Azzexits.
Italy always starts big tournaments slowly – that’s an iron law that predates the Punic Wars – but at no other time has it bitten us on the bum as severely as it did at Euro 2004. Limp as shit draws vs first Denmark and then Sweden in our first two matches left Group C delicately poised.
We had bottom of the table Bulgaria left to play, while the Scandinavian neighbours played each other. For Italy, any sort of win was good enough to qualify us for the knockout stages, provided the other game produced a victor, a 0-0 or a 1-1 draw.
In the event of a 2-2 draw, Sweden and Denmark would both progress at gli Azzurri’s expense by virtue of having scored more goals than us in the games the three sides had played against one another.
Before the game, everyone concerned rubbished any suggestion that it would be a set-up, and that there could be any collusion between Sweden and Denmark. These are professional football teams. They don’t know how to do anything except try to win!
How wrong we were…
During the warm-up Erik Edman had asked Daniel Jensen “should we go for 2-2?” to which the Danish defender smiled and said: “Yes, why not?” Edman then said: “OK, you concede first.”
During the game Sweden’s Anders Andersson shouted “come on, bloody hell, give us a break now” to Denmark’s Thomas Gravesen when Sweden were losing 2-1. “Yes, but then you have to at least go forward,” said the Danish midfielder, who was dominating the game.
After the final whistle, with the 2-2 result confirmed, the Swedish striker Marcus Allback heard a voice behind him, saying: “Mackan, Mackan.” It was Allback’s Danish team-mate at Aston Villa, Thomas Sorensen, calling him by his nickname before lifting him up in the air. Allback was horrified and shouted: “Let me go, let me go, this is embarrassing.”
After Mattias Jonson’s 89th minute equaliser to bring the score to 2-2, as the two teams rolled the ball backwards and forwards to each other, making no attempt whatsoever to play anything that resembled football, Swedish fans unfurled a banner that said “Ciao Italia”.
Big tournament exits don’t come any more galling than that.
Something fundamentally changed for me after Euro 2004, though. I no longer suffer football disappointments as profoundly as I used to. Perhaps it’s a sign of growing up. Or maybe once you’ve experienced and recovered from the grand imperial poobah of ignominy, which is what those BLOODY SCANDANAVIANS dished up to us 12 years ago, every other regular sort of garden variety ignominy is water off a duck’s back…
Anyway, the upshot of all this is I’m totally prepared for anything these Euros can throw at me. At least I know one thing is for absolute certain – we won’t be playing against New Zealand, THANK GOD!!!!!!!
*I reserve the right to blubber like a baby for a couple of months when we get knocked out of Euro 2016.
A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: http://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/